Henry Golding in Snake Eyes: Origins of GI Joe.
Photo: Paramount Photos
If we absolutely must have GI Joe movies, surely they shouldn’t be so joyless. Even those of us who were fond of toys (and cartoons and comics) when we were kids – and trust me, at the age of 11, I was probably the biggest weirdo in GI. Joe from across Springfield, Virginia – for a movie series based on the Hasbro property. Still, the 2009 Stephen Sommers pic was silly and fun, the kind of adventure you might imagine having two 11-year-old kids smashing their figures.
This was followed by the widely reshot of 2013 GI Joe: Retaliation, a cynical act of brand management distinguished primarily by its willingness to kill off much of the cast from the previous film in the first act (perhaps because some of them, like Channing Tatum, had become big stars in in the meantime and didn’t want to be married to an endless GI Joe franchise). So now comes Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins, a reboot and origin story, concocting a new story for one of the most interesting members of the GI Joe team. But it sounds so pro forma, so uninventive and brooding, that if you told me everyone does it had an Uzi pointed at their head, I could believe you.
Snake Eyes has always been a mysterious character – not because we didn’t know much about his past, but because we couldn’t see his face and he didn’t speak. Remember, these are toys designed for children. If anything, we knew more about Snake Eyes’ past than any other GI Joe’s, as the other characters were usually blank slates who mostly stood out for their weapons, costumes, and skills. (There was Pilot Guy. There was Skiing Guy. There was Minesweeper Guy. Then there were my two favorites, Diving Guy and Paratrooper Guy. That wasn’t what they were called, of course; I pretend I forgot their real names so I can hang on to what little dignity I have left.)
The fact that no GI Joe really has a rock-solid backstory gives filmmakers an unusual degree of freedom to prepare for these people’s pasts; they could literally be anyone from anywhere. In the case of this film, Snake Eyes begins as a young boy who sees his father murdered by a group of sinister men, one of whom enjoys rolling a pair of dice before killing his targets. We then see our hero as an adult (played by the disarmingly handsome Henry Golding) working for a Yakuza boss, helping smuggle guns into fish carcasses. When Snake Eyes saves a co-worker, Tommy (a strangely charismatic Andrew Koji), from execution, he is suddenly taken to Tommy’s family compound near Tokyo, home of the Arashikage clan, who have been a source of power. underground for centuries. To join the clan, Snake Eyes must complete several “warrior challenges,” which appear to range from rappelling down a wall to fighting against three giant magical anacondas. A challenge requires him to try and grab a water bowl from the Arashikage Clan Hard Master (don’t ask) while holding his own water bowl and not spilling any. This should provide a tremendous opportunity for some impressive and elegant choreography, especially as the Hard Master is played by Iko Uwais, the Indonesian star of Bottled Lightning from Lowering movie theater.
But no, everything is cut, cut, cut, cut.
The action in Snake-eyes is instantly forgettable, even if the locations and costumes are sometimes fun. Sometimes you can smell director Robert Schwentke – a German-American companion whose work has ranged from the formidable (2017 The captain) to the solid (Flight plan, The wife of the time traveler) to never talk about it again (RIPD.) – trying to assert some visual imagination. There’s a rain-soaked and neon-soaked street fight with long takes and plunging camera movements that gave me first reason for hope, and Alec Hammond’s production design, especially in the enclosure of the Arashikage clan, sometimes enchants. (There’s also a great end credits sequence, which suggests that Schwentke or someone from the post-production setup was a huge Gaspar Noe fan. Step into the void.)
You can also feel the film struggling to provide fan service while trying to tell its own story, and to the picture’s credit, it’s not too pushy on the first one. One could easily watch this movie without knowing that characters like the Hard Master and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah) and indeed the entire Arashikage clan – including Tommy, who of course would become Storm Shadow, the former nemesis and brother of blood of Snake Eyes – play an important role in the universe of GI Joe. Even attempts to introduce Cobra (the international terrorist organization which is the main opponent of the Joes) seem timid. This is, believe it or not, mostly a good thing, as it should free up the filmmakers to do pretty much whatever they want.
You would think, however, that with that kind of freedom, they would have found a more interesting story for Snake Eyes than “he worked for the Yakuza once.” Or, for that matter, a dialogue that doesn’t look like a cut-and-paste job from a number of other films. The characters in Snake-eyes always seem to be in climax-speak mode; even the most disposable lines are infused with omen. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the level of the action – the fighting, the swordplay, the choreography – ever approached the mythical or even just the slightly overwhelming. But in the midst of all I looked in your eyes, and I saw the honors and the You put the clan in danger, you must atones and the You should’ve killed me when you had the chances, the film remains debilitating credits, devoid of creativity, intensity or grace. I’m not sure even I, I’m 11, would be okay with that.